The roots of the U.S. Personnel Security Program can be traced back to the Civil Service Act of 1883 that required applicants for federal employment to possess the requisite character, reputation, trustworthiness, and fitness for employment. In 1912 the LaFollette Act established protection for federal employees from being fired from their jobs for arbitrary reasons and imposed a standard of “just cause” that would promote the “efficiency of the service,” a concept later applied to security clearance determinations. The Hatch Act of 1939 added a prohibition against anyone employed by the government from being a member of any organization that advocates overthrowing the U.S. Government.

Executive Order 8781 (1941) required fingerprinting of all federal employee and directed the FBI to establish a system to check criminal records. In 1942 War Service Regulation II denied federal employment to anyone whose loyalty was in “reasonable doubt.” The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 mandated a security program for the Atomic Energy Commission and directed the FBI to investigate applicants’ character, associations, and loyalty. Executive Order 9835 (1947) established the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, providing standards and procedures for investigations and creating Loyalty Review Boards. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) was charged with conducting investigations for federal “competitive service” positions.

In 1948 by joint agreement of the service secretaries, the Department of Defense (DoD) unified the military security program and implemented standards and procedures similar to those put into effect for civilians under E.O. 9835. In 1956 DoD Directive 5210.9 established the same loyalty standard for the military as required for civilians. DoD Regulation 5200.2 created detailed uniform security clearance policies and standards for military, civilian, and contractor personnel.

Executive Order 10450 (1953) superseded E.O. 9835 and required investigations of federal employees to determine their reliability, trustworthiness, good conduct and character, and loyalty to the United States. It required that employment be “clearly consistent with the interest of national security.” The E.O. required a full field investigation for sensitive positions and a minimum of a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) for other positions. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Act was amended to authorize the Department of Energy (DoE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Safeguards and Security programs, which created a structure for the protection of “Restricted Data” separate from national security clearances. Executive Order 10865 (1960) established standards governing access to classified information for federal contractor employees. In 1965 CSC redefined “sensitive” positions into “critical-sensitive” and “non-critical sensitive” positions and removed the requirement for a full-field investigation for non-critical sensitive positions.

The Defense Investigative Service (DIS) was created in 1972 to consolidate DoD Personnel Security Investigations (PSI) previously conducted by US Army, Navy and Air Force. Soon after DIS became operational it had 48,000 pending cases (twice its optimum workload), many of which were overdue. From 1974 to 1985 DIS’s workload increased over 58% with 17.5% fewer personnel (about 850) than the military had to do the job prior to 1972.

In 1981 a General Accounting Office report (GGD-81-105) estimated that delays for initial security clearances cost the Government $920 million a year in lost productivity. That same year DIS imposed a moratorium on conducting Periodic Reinvestigations (PR) for clearances involving access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) in order to deal with a large backlog of requests for initial investigations. In 1983 it resumed these PRs and also began conducting PRs for collateral Top Secret clearances. The 1985 “Stillwell Commission” report recommendations resulted in $25 million of additional funding for DIS with emphasis on Periodic Reinvestigations (PR) for Top Secret clearances due to large the backlog of these cases. The Commission further recommended PRs for Secret clearances. In 1989 DIS began conducting period reinvestigations for Secret clearances and receives 40,000 new cases in this category and 46,000 the following year. DIS was allowed to increase its investigative staff and reached high point of about 3,100 personnel, including 2,400 field investigators by 1991. However, in anticipation of a reduction in security clearance requests because of the “peace dividend,” a hiring freeze is imposed on DIS later that year. A subsequent 48% reduction-in-force occurred over the following 3 years and left DIS with an investigative staff of about 1,600 personnel, including about 1250 field investigators.

In 1991 National Security Directive 63 established the Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) standard for access to Top Secret defense information, Secret and Top Secret Restricted Data, and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). The SSBI significantly increased the amount of work required for investigations for Top Secret clearances. A revision of Director of Central Intelligence Directive 1/14 in 1992 added neighborhood investigations to PRs for Top Secret clearances. The 1994 “Joint Security Commission” report recommended standardization, computerization, and changes in investigative scope for security clearances. In response to the 1994 amendment to the National Security Act of 1947, Executive Order 12986 (1995) established the Security Policy Board to develop a common set of investigative and adjudicative standards, improve clearance reciprocity, strengthen appeal procedures, and improve non-discrimination.

In 1996 DIS was forced to implement a quota system for periodic reinvestigations restricting the number of requests Defense agencies were authorized to submit. The quota system remained in place until 1999 and significantly increased the backlog of these cases. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which had been created in 1978 to partially replace the CSC, privatized their Office of Federal Investigations (about 770 employees) resulting in the creation of the US Investigations Services (USIS) in 1996 under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. USIS was awarded a 3-year non-competitive contract to conduct investigations for OPM. The 1997 report of “The Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy” recommended a full range of changes to the security clearance process to make it more efficient and to address transparency and due process concerns.

In 1998 the new investigative standards required by E.O. 12968 were issued. Implementation of the new investigative standards resulted in “backlog” of 400,000 PRs, most of which were investigations required by the new standards but not yet submitted to the Defense Security Service—DSS (formerly known as the Defense Investigative Service). In 2000 DoD began shifting a large portion of security clearance investigations from DSS to OPM. In 2004 DoD began submitting all security clearance investigations to OPM, and DSS investigators began conducting cases under OPM control. According to General Accountability Office report 04-344, DSS and OPM had a combined investigative staff of 4,200 government and contractor personnel. OPM estimated that about 8,000 were needed. The average turnaround time for an SSBI by OPM hit a high of about 396 days. Later that year the President approved an optional Phased Periodic Reinvestigation (PPR) for Top Secret clearances. The PPR provided for a less expensive investigation of narrower scope than the standard PR for Top Secret clearances.

In December 2004 Title III of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) required that by December 2009 90% of clearance determinations be made within 60 days. In response to another IRTPA requirement, Executive Order 13381 designated the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the single office within the executive branch responsible for policy and oversight of the personnel security program. OMB further designated OPM as the primary investigative agency for conducting personnel security investigations. In February 2005 DSS transferred about 1,600 personnel to OPM, increasing OPM’s investigative staff to a combined total of 7,819 employees and contractors. By 2008 OPM investigative staff reached a high point of 9,421 personnel.

In February 2008 the President issued a memorandum on “Security Clearances” directing that a proposal be submitted to him by April 2008 to modernize, standardize, and integrate comprehensive credentialing, security clearance, and suitability processes. The Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team (JSSRT) submitted its “Initial Report” as directed by the memorandum and submitted a progress report in December 2008. A new 3-tier investigative standard was approved for suitability and security clearance investigations with planned full implementation by late summer 2010. Executive Order 13467 was issued to establish a governance structure and a legal basis for the major changes planned for the federal personnel security program. It directed that the existing disparate processes for employment suitability, public trust, and security clearances be aligned into a unified coherent structure. In January 2009 Executive Order 13488 established the concept of reciprocity of fitness and employment suitability determinations for federal “excepted service” and contractor positions and a requirement for periodic reinvestigations for “public trust” positions.

OPM reduced the number of its initial investigations that were over 180 days old from 98,000 in October 2006 to 1,802 in August 2008, and average timeliness for 90% of all clearance determinations improved from 265 days in 2005 to 82 days in the 4th quarter of Fiscal Year 2008. However, it is widely acknowledged that the current security clearance system is incapable of attaining the December 2009 IRTPA average timeliness requirement of 60 days for 90% of clearance determinations. The new clearance system being developed by the JSSRT with its new investigative standards, eApplication, Automated Record Checks, eAdjudication, and Continuous Evaluation may be able to meet this requirement, but probably not until sometime in late 2010.


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William H. Henderson is a former Army Counterintelligence Agent and a retired federal clearance investigator. In 2007 he began helping clearance applicants from the pre-application stage through representation at hearings and appeals. Since 2012, he’s been the Principal Consultant at the Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS). His first two books on security clearances have been used at five universities and colleges. He recently published the 2nd Edition of Issue Mitigation Handbook. He’s contributed scores of articles to, and he’s been retained as an expert witness in several state and federal lawsuits.